Reading Suggestions for Getting Started

A Short Introductory Overview   by James L. Fitzgerald

A Short, Book Length Introduction  by Barend A. van Nooten

A Comprehensive Guide to the Mahābhārata (and the Rāmāyaṇa) and Scholarship on them   by John Brockington

A New One-Volume Retelling of the Epic   by John D. Smith

An Older One-Volume Retelling of the Story   by C. V. Narasimhan

A Recent Interpretation of the Meaning of the Epic through an Examination of the Bhagavad Gītā by Angelika Malinar

A Dramatic Adaptation   by Jean-Claude Carrière and Peter Brook

The Critical Edition of the Sanskrit Text   from the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune, India

The Complete Text of the Critical Edition in Modern English (in progress)   by J. A. B. van Buitenen, et. al.

The Northern Indian Popular Sanskrit Text with the Main Popular Commentary:  The Nīlakaṇṭha Mahābhārata

The Complete Text of the Popular Northern Version in Antiquated English  by M. Ganguli (the "P. C. Roy transl")

The Complete, Downloadable, Digitized Sanskrit Mahābhārata  of John Smith, based on the work of M. Tokunaga

An Index to the Names in the Mahābhārata   by S. Sørensen

A Short Introductory Overview: Mahābhārata,” by James L. Fitzgerald in The Hindu World edited by Sushil Mittal and Eugene Thursby (New York and London: Routledge, 2004): 52-74. A long, interpretive account of the basic narrative and a discussion of its meaning in its historical context written for teachers and students in courses introducing Hindu religious history and literature.

 A Short, Book Length Introduction: The Mahābhārata Attributed to Krsna Dvaipayana Vyasa by Barend A. van Nooten (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971). This volume, one in the Twayne's World Authors Series, provides a well informed but non-technical overview of the Mahābhārata by an emeritus Professor of Sanskrit at the University of California at Berkeley. It contains a detailed, book-by-book summary of the story, discussions of the religious, philosophical, and ethical components of the text, and an outline of the Mahābhārata's influence since the eighteenth century. The author's text is one hundred twenty pages long and is followed by fourteen pages of notes and references. It is accompanied by a good introductory bibliography of six pages, a short glossary of character names and places, and an index.

A Comprehensive Guide to the Mahābhārata (and the Rāmāyaṇa) and Scholarship on them:  The Sanskrit Epics, by John Brockington (Leiden:  Brill, 1998).  An up to date, general survey of the history of the two Sanskrit epics and the scholarship upon them written by Professor John Brockington, former Head of the Department of Sanskrit at the University of Edinburgh and General Secretary of the World Sanskrit Association.  This comprehensive treatment has a general introduction that discusses both epics in the context of ancient Vedic literature and ancient bardic institutions and recapitulates the plot of each epic.  It then devotes 272 pages in four chapters to the Mahābhārata and 120 pages in three chapters to the Rāmāyaṇa.  There is a chapter in between the treatments of the two epics on the Harivaśa (known in Indian tradition as an appendix of the Mahābhārata, this work focuses upon the life of Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva), and the tenth and final chapter of the book is a general discussion of the interrelationship of the two epics, their influence on later literature, and their place in world culture.  There is an extensive bibliography of thirty-three pages, a twelve-page index of passages cited, and a twenty-six page general index.

A New One-Volume Retelling of the Epic:  The Mahābhārata, edited and translated by John D. Smith (London: Penguin Books, 2009). In almost 800 pages this rendition of the critical text of Pune consists of direct and complete translation of about 11% of the Sanskrit text (p. lxviii) and straightforward summation of the text between the translated passages. The summarized material is printed in italic text and makes up about 50% of the book (p. lxviii). Both translated and summarized material are marked with the chapter numbers of the relevant parvan of the critical text, and the margins of the translation employ the Chicago translation method of marking the beginning of every fifth stanza of the text. Smith writes (p. lxviii) "I have felt it important that the passages translated should normally be long enough for a sense of style and narrative coherence to be established." And "[I]n choosing what to translate I have tried to be representative . . . [also] to select for full translation passages that, in one way or another, seem likely to make for enjoyable reading, whether because they represent narrative high points, or because they are particularly vividly told, or for whatever other reason." Preceded by an introduction of 60 pages and followed by a "Key to Names and Glossary," suggestions for "Further Reading," a map of "The India of the Mahābhārata," and five succinct "Genealogical Tables," the book is completed with an index of proper names (and a few conceptual terms) in eighteen pages.

An Older One Volume Retelling of the Story: The Mahābhārata: An English Version Based on Selected Verses by Chakravarthi V. Narasimhan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965). "A straightforward narrative account of the main theme of the epic" (from the Preface, p. vii), this version selects about four and one-half percent of the Critical Edition's 73,821 numbered units of text that present the basic story and nothing else. It is thus a rather dry and oversimplified version of the Mahābhārata, but it is a useful recapitulation of the bare bones of the story in two hundred and sixteen pages. It contains a listing of the names of the characters, a list of the alternative names of the main characters, and an index to the passages in Narasimhan's source texts (the Critical Edition of Pune for Books One through Eight, the P. C. Roy edition for Books Nine through Eighteen).

A Recent Interpretation of the Meaning of the Epic through an Examination of the Bhagavad Gītā:The Bhagavadgītā: Doctrines and Contexts by Angelika Malinar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). A thorough, chapter by chapter examination of the Bhagavad Gītā that relates its arguments to other critical sections of the Mahābhārata and presents a careful argument regarding the history of the text and its dating. This work is an updated and revised translation by the author of her earlier thorough and comprehensive Rājavidyā: Das königliche Wissen um Herrschaft und Verzicht. Studien zur Bhagavadgītā. (Wiesbaden: Harrossowitz Verlag, 1996).

A Dramatic Adaptation: The Mahābhārata: A Play Based Upon the Indian Classic Epic by Jean-Claude Carrière; translated from the French by Peter Brook (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1987). The script which served as the basis for Peter Brook's stage and film presentations of the Mahābhārata. A freely interpretive rendition of the epic's action which is not based immediately upon the Sanskrit text (neither Carrière nor Brook is a Sanskritist), but which is more thematically nuanced and pointed than Narasimhan's condensation. This version reproduces many of the small, symbolic details of the original and thus requires closer attention than a broader retelling, but that fact also makes it an interesting, ambitious attempt to represent the significance of the epic beyond its surface narrative. Carrière sees the central theme of the epic to be ". . . a threat: we live in a time of destruction--everything points in the same direction. Can this destruction be avoided?" (Introduction, p. ix), and his play represents that theme consistently. I myself do not agree with this interpretation of the Mahābhārata, but this is an authentic contemporary Western reading and adaptation of the text.

The Critical Edition of the Sanskrit Text: The Mahābhārata for the First Time Critically Edited, 19 vols. (Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Institute, 1933-1966), edited by V. S. Sukthankar, S. K. Belvalkar, and P. L. Vaidya, general editors, and Franklin Edgerton, Raghu Vira, S. K. De, R. N. Dandekar, H. D. Velankar, V. G. Paranjpe, and R. D. Karmarkar. A massive editorial project which recorded the readings of hundreds of manuscripts and other forms of testimony from all over the Indian sub-continent and Indonesia. Begun in 1919 at the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune, Maharashtra, this edition was fundamentally shaped and guided by Sukthankar, who laid out his editorial map in his brilliant Prolegomena to the first volume of the edition. The project was controversial from the beginning: Several scholars have argued that the Mahābhārata textual tradition is too complex, too rooted in living, oral traditions, to be amenable to edition on the basis of principles developed in the more simply literary traditions of Western texts. These scholars judge the Pune text to be an unwarranted simplification of the tradition that has produced an artificial text that never existed for anyone at any time in the past. At the same time the Pune edition (though only in its complete version, that is, with its full apparatus) makes available not only the editorially determined critical text, but all the variants to that text and all the passages that were judged to be additions to the putative original text. This text is the basis of most contemporary Western scholarship on the Mahābhārata, but at the same time few such scholars, if any, take the critical edition simply at face value.

The Complete Text of the Critical Edition in Modern English (in progress): The Mahābhārata, edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen and James L. Fitzgerald, translated by van Buitenen, Fitzgerald, and others. Ten volumes are projected, four volumes have been published. Van Buitenen translated the first three volumes, comprising the first five major books of the epic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973-78); Fitzgerald translated volume 7, comprising Book Eleven (The Book of the Women) and the first half of Book Twelve (The Book of Peace). Van Buitenen’s three volumes take the narrative up the point that the great war is about to begin and Fitzgerald’s takes up events immediately following the account of the great, eighteen day war. The Book of the Women praises the fallen heroes by portraying the grief of their bereaved women and The Book of Peace presents an extensive series of political, philosophical, and religious teachings designed to calm and quiet the soul of the victorious, but seriously distraught, new king Yudhiṣṭhira, as he takes up rule of the Bhārata kingdom. Van Buitenen and Fitzgerald have translated the Pune text into contemporary English prose (van Buitenen rendered the parts of the Sanskrit text that occurred in the triṣṭubh meter with English verse), with all the major sections of the text preceded by short, chapter by chapter summaries, and followed by annotations. There are brief glossaries of the names of characters and other ancillary appendices, and each volume contains an index of names.

David Gitomer of DePaul University is nearly finished with a translation of Book Six of the epic, which will include his rendition of the Bhagavad Gītā and then the first ten days of the battle (volume 4 of the series). Gary Tubb of the University of Chicago has begun work on the very large Seventh Book of the epic, which details many dramatic episodes of days eleven through fifteen (volume 5 of the series). Christopher Minkowski, Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, is working on a translation of Book Eight, which narrates the battle during the two days Karṇa led the Kaurava army and culminates in Arjuna’s dramatic killing of Karṇa (first part of volume 6). Alf Hiltebeitel of The George Washington University is working on the translation of Books Nine and Ten, which recount the final day and night of the battle, which concluded with the horrific raid on the sleeping warriors in the Pāṇḍava camp (second part of volume 6). Fitzgerald of Brown University is finishing a translation of the second half of Book Twelve (volume 8). Patrick Olivelle of the University of Texas has begun a translation of Book Thirteen (volume 9), which continues the teachings of the twelfth book. Fred Smith of the University of Iowa is completing a translation of Book Fourteen, which resumes the narrative of new Bhārata administration of Yudhiṣṭhira, following the death of the “patriarch” Bhīṣma (first part of volume 10). Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago is translating the final four books of the epic (Books Fifteen through Eighteen), which detail the final days of the previous generation of the Bharatas, of the Vṛṣṇis (Kṛṣṇa’s clan), and of the Pāṇḍavas, concluding with their journey to heaven (second part of volume 10).

The Northern Indian Popular Sanskrit Text with the Main Popular Commentary:  SrimanMahābhāratam with the Bhāratabhāvadīpa of Nīlakaṇṭha, 8 vols. (including the Harivaśa), (Pune: Citrashala Press, 1929-1936). One of the handiest published version of the vulgate text with Nīlakaṇṭha's sometimes copious, sometimes sparse commentary. Though his explanations are at times formulaic or deductive and at other times tendentious or even inconsistent, Nīlakaṇṭha was a learned scholar who has been maligned without warrant in the past and whose understandings underlie more than a little of what is in the English language renderings of the epic.

The Complete Text of the Popular Northern Version in Antiquated English: The Mahābhārata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa Translated into English Prose from the Original Sanskrit Text, by K. M. Ganguli, translator and P. C. Roy, sponsor and publisher, 11 vols. (Calcutta: Bharata Press, 1884-1896). An informed, serious, and scholarly translation (though far from perfect or completely reliable) of an eclectic mix of the popular version of Nīlakaṇṭha and the Calcutta version of the text. Ganguli's original edition (unlike many, though not all, of its reprints) contained indications of the individual verses translated and also thoughtful footnotes that pointed out Ganguli's differences with the commentator Nīlakaṇṭha and with the authors of the Bengali translation.

The Complete, Downloadable, Digitized Mahābhārata: The Electronic Text of the Mahābhārata edited by Professor John Smith of Cambridge University is available at  This text (initially released in March, 1999) is a corrected and enhanced form of the first electronic version of the Mahābhārata (see below) carried out by Professor Smith with the aid of a team of scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, India (the home of the critical edition of the Mahābhārata).  The Smith text is available for PC, Macintosh, and Unix platforms and in different font-character encodings, including Devanāgarī.  The original electronic text of the Mahābhārata is The Machine-readable Text of the Mahaabhaarata: Based on the Pune Critical Edition, by Professor Muneo Tokunaga, First revised version (V1), September, 1994; Upgrade Version (1.1), October, 1996, produced by Mrs. Mizue Sugita (Kyoto:, 1996).  Professor Tokunaga accomplished the stupendous task of entering the entire Mahābhārata (and the Rāmāyaṇa as well!) into ASCII format in a specially devised transliteration and formatting scheme.  Professor Tokunaga's text is the basis of the improved and corrected Smith text (see above) and most users should now use that electronic version of the Mahābhārata.

An Index to the Names in the Mahābhārata: An Index to the Names in the Mahābhārata with Short Explanations and a Concordance to the Bombay and Calcutta Editions and P. C. Roy's Translation, by Søren Sørensen (London: Williams and Norgate, 1904-1925; reprinted, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1963).  Though cumbersome to use in connection with the critical edition, an indispensable reference work for anyone wishing to study the Mahābhārata in addition to reading it.  All proper names are given with a complete listing of the places of their occurrence.  It also contains, under the names of the 100 sub-parvans, very brief, chapter by chapter summaries of the contents of the sub-parvans.

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Copyright © 2009 James L. Fitzgerald
1.55  Created and maintained by James L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University

Updated Sep 17, 2009